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Golden Bear’s bond with Canada still strong

Six-time Masters champion Jack Nicklaus and then defending Masters champion Mike Weir at the 2004 Masters tournament

Shaun Best/Reuters

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. - Jack Nicklaus won 18 major championships and finished second in another 19. At 73, he's entitled to sit back and reflect on his accomplishments in golf. But he prefers to keep working, so he presides over Golden Bear Inc., encompassing his worldwide businesses.

He'll be in Toronto on Tuesday for a hospital fundraiser.

Nicklaus's businesses include, among other enterprises, golf course design, wines, clothing, books, and even the Golden Bear line of lemonades, launched a year ago and thriving. This week's WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Ariz., is being played on the Dove Mountain course he designed. Nicklaus and his company have generated 365 golf courses in 34 countries.

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Nicklaus's organization is based in an office building here in Golden Bear Plaza, a few minutes away from his home and The Bear's Club, a course he designed and where he plays. He'll be there Monday for a one-day event to raise money for the Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation, the charitable initiative in which he and his wife, Barbara, are involved. The event is in memory of their late grandson, Jake, who was 17 months old when he drowned in a hot tub accident eight years ago.

Ernie Els, Keegan Bradley, Greg Norman, Rory McIlroy and other stars will play Monday, as will David Hearn of Brantford, Ont.

Hearn will then join a strong field in the Honda Classic, which starts Thursday at the nearby PGA National Champion course. Nicklaus effectively redesigned that course, which reopened in 1990, and has continued to improve it.

The course is the main reason the Honda Classic's field, which includes defending champion McIlroy, Els, Bradley and Tiger Woods, has become so strong. The Nicklaus Children's Health Care Foundation is the tournament's main beneficiary.

"It's a big week for us," Nicklaus said recently, sitting in his office during an hour-long interview.

Nicklaus will travel after the Monday fundraiser to Augusta, Ga. He'll stop en route to play the Augusta National Golf Club on Tuesday morning and then proceed to Toronto for a private function that evening to benefit the Robotic Prostate Cancer Surgical Program at Toronto East General Hospital. Six-time major champion Nick Faldo will also be there.

Nicklaus will return home after the event, and will participate in a variety of ways – although, of course, not as a player – in the Honda Classic. Come April, Nicklaus will be at the Masters. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the first of his six wins at Augusta.

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In July, the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ont., will play host to the RBC Canadian Open. The course will be the venue for the 26th time.

Jack Nicklaus
Jack Nicklaus hits a ball out of a sand trap at Glen Abbey Golf Club at Oakville in 1976

Glen Abbey was the first course Nicklaus designed entirely on his own. He had been an active participant in Canadian golf since he played the 1958 Canadian Amateur at the Scarboro Golf and Country Club in Toronto. He lost in the first round of the match play championship, but that didn't stop him from returning to Canada year after year for the Canadian Open after he turned professional. It was the beginning of a long and significant relationship with Canadian golf.

"I would have developed a lot closer relationship if I'd won the Canadian Open," Nicklaus said. (He finished second seven times.)

"Barbara kept sending me back. She said: 'I'm going to keep sending you back until you get it right.'"

He came closest to winning, perhaps, in the 1984 Canadian Open at Glen Abbey, finishing second to Norman. Twenty-nine years later, Nicklaus says with a laugh he, in fact, "finished first to Norman," rather than second. Norman also won the 1992 Canadian Open at Glen Abbey.

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"On 17 [in 1984], Greg hit his second shot over the green in the last round, and into the parking lot," Nicklaus recalls. "They had removed the [out of bounds] stakes for the parking lot, so he got to play it, and he ended up beating me by a shot [two shots, in fact]. I should have won it there, but they ruled it the way they ruled it, that the stakes weren't there, and so he wasn't out of bounds, so I didn't win. That's okay. That's the way it goes. That's the way the ball bounces."

Two or three years later, Nicklaus was playing a practice round for the Bing Crosby Pro-Am in Pebble Beach, Calif. (now the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am), when he had another close encounter with Canadian golf. This time with Canadian golfers Richard Zokol and Jim Nelford.

Nicklaus leaned back in his chair and couldn't stop laughing as he recalled what he refers to as "one of my favourite stories."

He was playing Cypress Point, then one of the courses used in the tournament. His friends, amateurs Bob Hogue and Pandel Savic, and the English tour pro Howard Clark, were in his foursome. Zokol and Nelford were playing in front of them.

Clark was playing his first PGA Tour event. He'd never seen Cypress Point. Its par-three, 225-yard 16th hole is probably the most photographed hole in the game. The green is on a peninsula, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and crashing waves.

"It's an absolutely gorgeous day," Nicklaus recalled, "and we walk around the corner to the 16th tee, there's a fog bank and you can't see your hand in front of your face. We're coming to the most famous par-three in the world, and you can't see it."

Up ahead, Zokol had been plotting a practical joke and Nelford co-operated. They waited for the Nicklaus group to play. A ball landed on the green. Zokol hoped it would be a MacGregor, which Nicklaus played. But it wasn't. Zokol took the ball, a Spalding, and put it in the hole. He knew it was Clark's ball.

Zokol and Nelford were on the 17th green when they heard a roar from the 16th green.

"Everybody's congratulating Howard, yelling and screaming," Nicklaus recalled. "It's unbelievable, the first time Howard's played the hole and he never even saw the hole and gets a hole-in-one. So we press our bets and play 17. We go to the 18th tee, walk up, there's a little note on the tee. 'Nice shot, Howard. Ha-ha. The crazy Canucks.' I love that story."

That night, Nicklaus told the story when he addressed a gathering of golf writers. "It was a great relief to me that Nicklaus took it in the right spirit," Zokol said.

Nicklaus is a member of the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame, having been inducted in 1995, in the builder category for his involvement in Canadian golf and his Glen Abbey course.

He also designed the excellent Loxahatchee Golf Club in Jupiter, Fla., which his close friend, Toronto businessman Gordon Gray, developed. The late Jack Grout, Nicklaus's dear friend and long-time instructor, had a home there. Nicklaus frequently fished for salmon on the Restigouche River in New Brunswick with Gray.

Mike Weir was 13 when he wrote Nicklaus to ask him if he should stay a left-handed golfer or switch to right-handed. Nicklaus advised him to stick with his natural southpaw style. Weir went on to win the 2003 Masters and seven other PGA Tour events. He and Nicklaus have spoken frequently about the game. Weir acknowledges Nicklaus as an important influence and even mentor.

At Muirfield Village Golf Club, meanwhile, Nicklaus chose former Canadian Open chairman Richard Grimm to be a member of his Captains' Club. Grimm was also instrumental in getting Nicklaus to design Glen Abbey.

"We felt we should have a Canadian representative within our Captains' Club," Nicklaus said. "Dick Grimm was far and away the most obvious choice. He's been a tremendous contributor and supporter of our tournament."

Similarly, Nicklaus has been a tremendous contributor to and supporter of Canadian golf.

"I've had some great times in Canada," he said.

Given his relationship with Canadian golf, even if he never did win the country's most important championship, it's not surprising he'll be in Toronto on Tuesday during one of the busiest weeks on his calendar.

Fifty-five years have passed since Nicklaus came north for the first time to play the Canadian Amateur. His bond with Canada remains strong.

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